"I'm sorry, Korra. You'll never see your father again." Well, that's one way to end a mentorship.
With the clouds of frustration and confusion finally dissipating from above a brewing political war, life was looking a wee bit easier for Korra at the end of “Civil Wars, Part 1.” That is, until Unalaq showed up to arrest her parents for orchestrating an attempt on his life. In any other circumstance, Tonraq and Senna being chained up and hauled away would snap Korra into action. But she resists, stunned into silence as Unalaq explains his actions. He's doing exactly what Korra told him to do.
Last season, Korra's adversary had a face — a masked face, sure, but we knew him — and each leg of the mystery had a clear cut solution. People were having their souls removed! Scary stuff. But Book 2's growing threats are even more terrifying for Korra because they're morally murky. Without a right or wrong, Korra can't figure out what side she's supposed to be on or if she's supposed to choose at all. Even when Unalaq explains that he pulled strings to ensure that Tonraq, Korra's own father, never again sees the light of day himself, he explains himself with disciplined rhetoric that makes logical sense. It might be shrouding an ulterior, nefarious motive, but Korra can't know for sure. Trust in herself, trust in her mentors, and trust in Team Avatar were her greatest weapons. Then she met Unalaq and the rug was bended from under her feet.
“Civil Wars, Part 2” makes this message clear, then repeatedly pummels Korra under its weight. We see her parents' trial and every question signals conviction. It's an open and closed case: The judge lets Senna walk free, Torlaq earns a death sentence, and Unalaq conveniently steps in to save the day and win back a little respect from his troubled student. It works. Momentarily.
Korra's decision to hunt down the presiding judge and interrogate him in the jaws of Naga is a rash move, even for the hot-tempered hero. She's hitting a boiling point. With her Avatar State powers, there's reason to fear that Korra is preparing to make a huge misstep. But not this episode. Here she gets the answers: Unalaq was pulling strings to keep Torlaq out of Korra's life — and not just in this instance. He forced the judge to convict her father and he was one who had him banished from the Northern Water Tribe years before. Korra goes into Death Wish mode.
Interspersed into “Civil Wars, Part 2” is a lovely tying up of knots for Tenzin, Bumi, and Kya. So far, their time at the Southern Airbender temple has had little to do with Korra's civil war negotiating. And yet it's the most emotional material we've seen in Book 2. No one could be prepared for the amount of cute going on in these scenes. Ikki's tea party with the baby sky bisons is the tip of the iceberg, Bumi's hopeful speech to his father's spirit, Tenzin coming to terms with his familial woes and hugging it out with his brother and sister; and that last moment, a photograph of Aang, Katara, and the three kids taken decades before — tears. Just tears. It's the type of delicate, personal drama you can't find on network television anymore.
With all the ambiguous political manipulating taking place behind Korra's back, forcing her to chase false leads and make little progress, writer Michael Dante DiMartino draws the rest of Team Avatar back into the fold to push the episode forward. Bolin is still warding off Eska, now acting as a spy for her father. Everyone's searching for Varrick, whose shady wheeling and dealing is looking more essential in the effort to uncover and end Unalaq's plans. Mako, Bolin, and Asami find the eccentric hiding in a platypus bear — because, occasionally, a Nickelodeon cartoon is allowed to be a Nickelodeon cartoon. He clues them in to the rigged trial, albeit too late to put a stop to Unalaq's plans. When they do inform Korra, the episode finally kicks into high gear. It's time to bust some skulls.
First they confront Unalaq at Southern Water Tribe HQ, a scene that feels pulled directly from the Harry Potter handbook. Memories of evil Dark Arts teachers flood into Legend of Korra as they duel in the hallways and gracefully touch upon Unalaq's master plan. He talks of only wanting to help Korra “realize her destiny” and explains that if she allows the civil war to proceed, the dark spirits will annihilate the South. Then this eyebrow-raiser:
“You need me to open the Northern portal!”
"No, I don't. You've served your purpose."
Sinister, though not an outright confession. DiMartino is clearly invested in holding answers close to the chest, but this is a start. The line doesn't tell us much about what Unalaq is planning, instead opening up the scope of what evil lurks behind the curtain. Only the Avatar has the ability to unleash whatever Unalaq wants from the southern portal. Now he's controlling it and aiming to crush the non-believers.
Why Korra doesn't Avatar State Unalaq into submission after displaying the lengths she'll go to better understand her predicament is a bit muddled — but it does open up for the Book's biggest set piece yet. Recalling Avatar: The Last Airbender's sixth episode “Imprisoned,” Korra breaks her dad out of the slammer in the most bombastic way possible. Legend of Korra is at its best when it's stretching the physics of bending in new and visually stunning ways. Mako and Korra assisting Asami's biplane with firebending jet propulsion is exactly that. Through animation, their plan is enacted fluidly: They crash the plane, swim in a waterbended bubble to the surface of the ocean, shoot themselves on to the deck, and rush Torlaq out of danger. A dynamic sequence that makes up for the plodding pace of the rest of the episode.
As long as Team Avatar escapes an enraged Eska — who really saw Bolin as the perfect, subservient husband — they'll be making their way back to Republic City. Much like Korra, here's hoping there are a few more answers there.
Odds & Ends
* Another Eska line worthy of quotation: "Boyfriend, bow to me when I exit." Aubrey Plaza might be better on Legend of Korra than on Parks & Recreation.
* It's a little weird that Mako, a policeman in Republic City, allows Varrick to give Bolin money to bribe Southern Water Tribe officials? Maybe this is one of those “badge off” investigations.
* Blueberry Spicehead, Princess Rainbow, Twinkle Starchild, Juniper Lightning Bug — the sky bison tea party's nod to/jab at My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic?
* More Asami, please. I have a feeling that, when Team Avatar returns to Republic City, Mako's entrepreneurial ex will become an asset to the team, but I'm glad to see her get in on the action during their time in the water tribe. Lightning gloves rule.
* “Get the president from the United Republic on our side. We'll need the United Forces to win this war.” Two things from this line: One, that hyper-speed news reel in the first episode wasn't just fun world building, as the President looks to be a vital character this season. Two: The United Forces entering the civil war could signal a return of fan favorite General Iroh. Whether he'll actually side with the South or not could be an interesting conflict.
* Holy smokes, that face Eska makes when she's speeding at Team Avatar. A look to kill — is it anything more than a throwaway gag?